Sunday, February 2, 2020
Scripture: Matthew 5:1-12 & 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
I know it’s Super Bowl Sunday, so I get one more football game tonight, but I am already feeling the need to adjust back to life without football. Sunday night is usually a time to decompress from a busy day, and in the fall that often means watching the game. Not so this past Sunday. The Grammys were on, and I hadn’t really watched them in years. I suspect most of us aren’t really tuned in to the Grammys, but I can tell you that they’ve changed a ton over the past couple of decades.
As a kid I used to watch these award shows because they felt important. The Grammys would have artists perform songs – just a band on stage. There would be lots of awards and speeches. Those speeches took up most of the broadcast. The Grammys are so different today. They only give out a small handful of the major awards on the broadcast. The rest are handed out at an earlier event that isn’t on TV. Now the broadcast is mostly massive choreographed performances by major stars. I was stunned by how much work and creativity went into each act. Stage redesigns. Dozens of dancers. Lights. Video. Visual storytelling. Remarkable talent. On the surface it was actually fun to watch, although I know how dated my tastes have become because I enjoyed most seeing Run DMC and Aerosmith play their 80s hit “Walk This Way,” only to be reminded that Aerosmith’s singer is 71 years old.
Anyway, the Grammys have become a visual feast for the eyes, but in the days since watching it, I began to feel how empty the whole thing is. Not that humans creating culture and music is empty, but how we now value it sure is. The Grammys basically honor people who have gotten exactly what they were aiming for, but what is it they seek? Stardom. The perception of sexual fulfillment. Money – lots of it. Cultural influence. After all the millions of dollars spent on promoting Lizzo and Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande, I was left thinking, “Beyond making more money, what’s the point?” Sure, they’re making some beautiful music – some of it quite artful – but the Grammys just left me feeling empty. The point of this life isn’t stardom, beauty, or wealth, but that’s the message we’re given incessantly. It’s an empty message.
The Grammys are such a striking contrast to the texts we just heard. Both Paul’s words and Jesus’ teaching give us a picture of life in God’s kingdom. It’s a picture that would look foolish on the stage at the Grammys, and yet what would seem foolish to these stars and their adoring fans Paul calls, “the wisdom of God.” I’ve always been stunned by the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. In it, he says up is down and down is up. It’s an upside-down world. The booming city of Corinth was then what New York City is today – people from all over the world trading, money passing from person to person, and people very interested in the newest ideas. Into that Paul declares, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). In our reading Paul uses the word “foolishness” five times. In Greek it comes from the word moros, which is where we get the word “moron” from. In other words, the prevailing culture hears the gospel and thinks, “That’s moronic. Who would ever believe that?” The all-powerful God of the universe dying on a cross? Impossible and stupid. That’s not how the world works, they think.
And yet, I have seen the power of the gospel at work in so many people who trust what Jesus says is true. I have seen it in the Rev. Ken Clark, who founded Grace Centers of Hope in downtown Pontiac, Michigan. Pontiac is a microcosm of all the challenges we hear about Detroit. High unemployment. Failing schools. Generational poverty. High incarceration rates. Into that space of hopelessness, Ken saw an opportunity to be foolish for the gospel. As everyone vacated downtown Pontiac, he moved in. Through generous donors, he bought the vacant post office and converted it into a shelter for the homeless. It’s a ministry that enters the brokenness of homelessness – women and children who have fled abuse, people trying to get clean from addictions, people with mental illnesses who have nowhere else to go – and he offers them a space of grace. It’s a massive operation committed to changing the lives of the homeless, addicted, and unwanted through the gospel, personal accountability, and life skills education. Today they serve around 200 people each day. Over the course of the year, they provide over 100,000 meals. They do this solely through the generosity of their donors – people like us, churches, and businesses. Because they believe in the foolishness of the gospel, they have shown that it truly is the power of God that is capable of transforming lives and communities.
“Consider your own call,” Paul writes. “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world….God chose the weak in the world….God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Cor 1:26-28). It’s an upside-down gospel. It’s foolishness.
Over the past few weeks we have been asking the question, “Who is Jesus?” Today we see Jesus as a teacher, but he’s a teacher of foolishness. Our text is the opening of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is teaching his disciples – those who are learning how to follow in his way – and there are crowds there hearing, too, what Jesus is teaching. Jesus is describing the upside-down life in God’s kingdom. His words will take us a lifetime to digest. His words are difficult. Perhaps impossible. They are familiar to us, and yet I suspect they would feel foreign if we religiously tried to live according to them for the rest of the week. Our friends would think we’re foolish. Who does Jesus call “blessed”?
- Not the spiritual giants but the “poor in spirit” – the ones who have absolutely nothing to give and absolutely everything to receive.
- Not the champions of faith but the ones who mourn over their own suffering and the suffering of others.
- Not the strong ones but the meek and gentle ones.
- Not the ones who are righteous but the ones who hope they will be someday.
- Not the winners of great victories over Evil in the world but the ones who are merciful when they see brokenness in others and themselves.
- Not the totally pure but the “pure in heart,” who somehow keep from growing weary and cynical.
- Not the ones who have fully found peace but the ones who try to bring that peace wherever and however they can.
This is foolishness, right? Yet, these words are not pie in the sky. They are not for the elites. They are the way of the kingdom, the gospel in our neighborhood. If we think for a few minutes, I’m sure we can come up with examples of times we actually pulled this off. It may be even easier to think of friends in whom you’ve seen this beautiful foolishness.
We have friends we’ve known for the past thirteen years. They’re retired. They did quite well in business and have amassed a small fortune. Society would expect them to live out their days seeking merely to enjoy life. Golf. Have memberships to exclusive clubs. Travel. Yet in their retirement they have used their blessings to engage with children living on the edge. Using the local youth symphony as a way to open a future for these kids, they invest their time and resources into their lives. She drives a minivan so she can shuttle the kids to private lessons. He quietly manages the books of nonprofits to make sure funds are used well. They have helped dozens of kids see a better future, and many of them have headed off to college. One day they shared with us this staggering news. “We’re not leaving any of our estate to our children or grandchildren,” they said. “We have provided well for them in this life, and they are capable of standing on their own.” When their time on earth comes to a close, they’re leaving everything to nonprofits and ministries that will spread the blessing to the least of these, to people growing up on the edge. Foolish, right? Yet their foolishness is beautiful, and it is what the world needs.
I saw this beautiful foolishness this week in our own county. On Tuesday I attended the County Commissioners’ meeting where they had an open forum to discuss whether or not Ottawa County would continue to be a place that welcomes refugees. For those of you who know me well, you know that political meetings are not my cup of tea. My passions lie elsewhere, yet I believe so strongly that welcoming the refugee is a clear gospel issue, I went to bear witness with many other pastors from the area. Frankly, in this world where we speak so often of “sides,” I was grateful to see democracy in action and to listen to voices that both agree and disagree with me. I listened as the Rev. Marshall Holtvluwer, the pastor at Covenant Life, spoke about how his children challenged him and his wife to difficult faithfulness. As they read Scripture together, they would come across passages like this one from Deuteronomy, “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back and get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow” (24:19). His kids said to him, “Dad, we see how the church supports orphans and widows, but we’re not doing anything for the alien.” This inspired them to pursue adopting a refugee child, part of their obedience to God. Dozens of others spoke about the importance of welcoming the refugee, even if it costs us, even if it changes the community, even if it is difficult because it is in that holy foolishness where we encounter the gospel transforming lives and communities. And I would be remiss if I didn’t say I am grateful that our county commission unanimously approved maintaining our status as a county open to refugees. It allows churches like ours to be obedient to God in welcoming the stranger.
Sermons on the Beatitudes often try to unpack what each of these sayings of Jesus means, but instead today I’ve tried to provide us portraits of what the Jesus way looks like in our world today, however imperfectly we live it out. It’s tempting to hear Jesus’ words and think they’re for some other day, since they’re wholly impossible. But that temptation would be a mistake. They’re for right now, that place where heaven and earth are meeting. That space can even be your life. “Blessed are you if you can see the world the way Jesus sees it.” Happy are you when you feel and act and live in these ways now because you believe in the reality of God’s kingdom come. “In other words, the Beatitudes show how you live after grace not how you earn grace.”
Faithfully living the gospel is difficult. We have so many other narratives in our lives that seem good on the surface but don’t lead to life. Wealth won’t do it. Security won’t do it. Popularity won’t do it. Neither will the right clothes or appearance. God gives us each other to help in this beautiful foolishness that is living the way of Jesus. God gives us the strength needed even when it’s hard to believe that we have it. The message of the gospel is foolishness to the world, but to those of us who are being saved it is the power of God. Indeed, blessed are the holy fools.
 Paraphrased from Frederick Buechner’s Whistling in the Dark, 19-20.